Increasingly, the qualification process for international tournaments has become a rather dull, meandering sideshow that most of the top players have little interest in indulging. Particularly internationals from the more dominant nations.
Consider the remarks of Real Madrid galactico Karim Benzema last month when he admitted he had not really felt like playing in the World Cup qualifier against Serbia and had struggled to give his all. While most superstars have the good sense not to make such admissions, no doubt there was widespread identification with the Frenchman’s views.
Having said all that, it’s during weeks like the one in store when international football truly lives up to its billing. For all their posturing, footballers want to go to the World Cup, even if only for the promotional opportunities. So with several automatic qualification places and most of the play-off spots still up for grabs, we can expect some genuinely meaningful fixtures over the final two matchdays.
Ireland v Italy
If we know anything about Italian football teams, we are certain they rarely go away from home looking for a win when a draw will suffice. Since Italy require just a point at Croke Park on Saturday to confirm their place in South Africa, don’t expect an attacking onslaught from the Azzuri.
A draw, you suspect, would suit Ireland as well, although with the Montenegro safety net available, it wouldn’t be any great risk to push for the three points.
But that isn’t really the Trap way and the return of Gennaro Gattuso will make it difficult for our unheralded midfield pairing to really get at the Italians – even if they were so inclined.
With four draws under our belts already – including ties in all of the most testing fixtures against Italy and Bulgaria – another stalemate seems the most realistic prospect here.
Twos looks pretty decent value.
Recommendation: Draw (Ireland v Italy) 22-10
World Cup Accumulator
Elsewhere on the continent, there is a huge derby clash in Copenhagen where Denmark can reach their first finals tournament in three attempts by beating old rivals Sweden.
The Swedes need here is probably greater, with the Danes able to rely on Hungary’s visit to the Parken Stadion next Wednesday to get over the line.
Despite the good form of Arsenal’s Nicklas Bendtner, Denmark have grown edgy recently as qualification beckoned, losing leads to draw at home with Portugal and away in Albania.
With Zlatan Ibrahimovic among the goals for Barcelona, the Swedes might just set up a tense finale by stealing the points.
There’s also a cracking night’s football in store in Moscow, where Russia and Germany go head-to-head for outright qualification.
Though they trail the Germans by a point, a home win will almost certainly send Guus Hiddink’s side through – with a straightforward-looking trip to Azerbaijan scheduled for next Wednesday.
Yury Zhirkov of Chelsea returns after injury and with Arsenal’s Andrey Arshavin beginning to click after his own groin problems, Russia should make it a torrid night for Joachim Low’s men.
Elsewhere, I’d expect the Czechs to grab a vital win at home to Poland in Group 3 and keep their play-off hopes alive, while Turkey must win in Brussels to stand any chance of catching Bosnia-Herzegovina for the runner-up spot in Spain’s group.
Beef up your bet with Greece to beat Latvia at home and Portugal to take care of Hungary in Lisbon.
Sweden, Russia, Czech Republic, Turkey, Greece, Portugal (Around 35-1)